I was surprised by two comparisons that came to mind as I read this: Shakespeare and Tolkien.
Pretty big calls, sure, but bear with me.
Dumas himself might have preferred a comparison to The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, something self-consciously referred to several times throughout the book. Coincidentally I’d been reading the Thousand and One Nights just before I read Monte Cristo, and while, perhaps, there might be some vague plot similarities in some of Shahrazad’s stories, Dumas shows a mile more sophistication and skill (if less bloodshed, sex, magic and repetition).
The characters in this book are so Shakespearian. They’re all larger than life: Valentine and Morrel utterly virtuous and innocent young lovers; Danglars as scheming an Iago as you’d want; Andrea Cavalcanti a coolly amoral player; Albert a picture of dashing honour over intellect; Mercédès and Madame de Villefort two striking counter-examples of devoted mothers. We’re not dealing with post-modern self-doubting everymen stumbling through life, these are extreme characters in extreme circumstances: it’s not too often you’re going to pause and say, “Hmmm, I know exactly how he feels.”
Likewise the Shakespeare style, plot, action, and devices. It’s all around a quest for revenge (or is it justice?), there are crucial letters, poisonings, star-crossed lovers’ trysts, courtroom performances, disguises, last minute averted bankruptcy, and, for goodness sake, yet another of these meddlesome priests with their cunning plans to fake a death with an ingenious potion. We have dozens of prose soliloquies, characters turning over their plans, doubts and motivations, and wonderful extended dialogue, with people talking with a depth and precision mere mortals could never hope to improvise. There aren’t as many killer one-liners in there, but the way the characters talk to themselves and each other reminded me more of those plays than anything else.
Now, to Tolkien. I suppose the essential reason for this comparison is the way he’s pulled off an epic. I can’t think of many other books of this size that maintain the coherency that they both manage. Now they do it in different ways, and Dumas teeters on the edge in a couple of places (while Tolkien is sublimely on track the whole time – he simply needed that many words to tell his story), but they both still manage to bring so much to a basic central story line. Most epics climax in book one, then have weak sequels added on once the publishers realise they have a hit. Most unsuccessfully try to reopen the old story and climb back in to a structure that will not fit them, and only undermine the superior complete original (Card, Jordan, Feist). Some series avoid this mistake by telling a new story within the old world (Pratchett, Leiber, Saberhagen), but this isn’t making an epic. In the Mars series, Robinson gave himself freedom to continue writing large decent books in the same franchise because there doesn’t have to be a single simple plot binding the whole thing together: no character is indispensable, the future is open. George R.R. Martin has tried to have his cake and eat by having a similar ruthless attitude to characters but hinting at a unifying conclusion (but while writing a corker of a first book in the series, he clearly hadn’t got the essential parts of the whole series sorted out before he published book one, and more than once has drifted into soap opera – a real and present danger if you’re going to write lots of books with lots of characters in the same series).
But Dumas! Like I said, in a couple of places he’s on the brink, but doesn’t quite fall over. We wonder why we spend quite so much time with Franz – who turns out to be quite incidental – but in Dumas’ defence, to meet Edmond reinvented as the Count through Franz’ eyes is an intriguing and clever way to introduce him. Indeed, the book could almost have started here (and the second part does feel like an entirely new book for some time), but, like Tolkien, rather than leap in with the ‘main’ story, Dumas patiently and painstakingly has to paint the whole history before we can get there. But while Tolkien splits up the major characters and has us desperately turning pages as he leaves each in cliff-hanger situations, Dumas has the slowest of slow burns running through the whole book. You don’t have to read it all in a sitting, and as the protagonist points out, a simple and quick revenge would not be just or satisfying. So he takes his sweet time. Along the way some of the time he spends to flesh out the characters of the sons and daughters of the subjects of the Count’s patient and comprehensive revenge seems liberal, but I suppose Dumas could say with his Count, ‘What’s your hurry?’
And to carry you along, instead of Tolkien’s amazing fantastical races, you have this wonderfully sophisticated French high society. Being cool – or being honourable – is not only about ego and looking good, it has a major effect on your whole family’s prospects. Make a fool of yourself in public, and you could lose your credibility – which could also cost you your house or your life. How you’re presented, who presents you, and how you carry it off is a game with big stakes. There was an excellent SBS movie that caught something of this (Ridicule – how cool is it that I found this out merely by typing ‘wit swamp french’ into google?) – about a relatively low income 19th Century noble who actually cares for the people on his land, and knows the only way to save them is to get them clean water. To afford this he needs the court’s patronage – and the favour of the court has nothing to do with the needs of the poor, and everything to do with whether you are seen as having a lively wit. The decent noble has to play the dirtiest games to do good. It’s in this sort of Dangerous Liaisons context that much of the drama takes place, and Dumas does it well (indeed he’s probably the prototype).
Moreover his count is a real triumph. He imagined the pinnacle of 19th Century cool and painted it. What’s more he gives us the whole process of just why this guy has got it so completely together. He’s Shaft, James Bond, Miles Davis … whoever … you just can’t touch him. So when the reader gets to see someone getting a bit close to his self-possession it has a real impact.
When we do eventually get to the resolutions of the old wounds, they are powerful and satisfying. I said this is Shakespearian, and there’s no pulling punches here – the crimes are terrible, the prices paid apposite, and both are vividly and minutely explored. Hence the massive length of the book – but this epic, unlike so many others, is coherent.
And all this without even mentioning the fascinating central philosophical issue of just who the Count thinks he is to take charge of so many lives. Is he, as he contends, merely the agent of providence? But the way he treats those he cares for seems at times more cruel than the way he treats his foes! The torture he puts Morrel through can only be compared to God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son. But wheras the trip to Moriah was about three days and the angel stayed Abraham’s hand, Monte Cristo would have made the trip a month, given Abraham a trick knife, made him plunge it in, and faked the death. Monte Cristo is unapologetically taking the role of God, and his justification is that:
…There is neither happiness nor grief in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another – nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness…
It’s a tough one to try to pull off. Did he manage it? Let the discussions commence.